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Secular and Sacred: Finding Common Ground

The secular and the sacred can peacefully coexist.

Key points

  • The secular and the sacred have common ground and together can give us a complete human experience.
  • In a divided culture, developing the middle ground between religion and material life offers peace and security.
  • Experiences in nature, in athletics, when in love, and in meditation can allow us to experience the sacred in a secular way.

I was surprised when my young adult clients and meditation students used the word “sacred” in a way that suggested that they were curious about an experience, maybe even longing for something. Several of them were young scientists from UCSB, and I knew that they prided themselves on being strictly secular, not affiliated with any religious or even spiritual group.

The coming together of these two words makes me curious: secular and sacred. Research tells me that secular is about the “worldly” or “temporal,” and the “not overly religious or spiritual.” The word sacred, however, suggests “something beyond the worldly,” and “worthy of reverence.” Often the secular and the sacred are seen as juxtaposed and polarized, and we see ourselves as being either in this camp or the other.

Recently, I listened to a podcast with the writer Reza Aslan. I learned that there is a great split in society with people either moving to the right while considering themselves religious or to the left, where people are becoming more and more antireligious. While the right is associated with religion, I am aware that there are also many from all parts of the political spectrum who have strong spiritual or religious affiliations.

Yet, in my own experience as a psychologist, I have observed that there is a surprisingly great interest, even a longing for the sacred; especially in younger people, who don’t want to be seen as religious. I remember a time, 16 years ago when I was a victim advocate for people abused by Franciscan monastics. I witnessed a great spiritual hunger in those who had been hurt, even though they had turned away from organized religion. Let’s unpack this. How can we have a conversation about this, to try to understand this hunger, and have some ideas about how to respond to it?

The secular is often associated with the rational, the practical, and the utilitarian, and with a world build on explanations and evidence. The sacred is often associated with meaning, with going beyond mere usefulness, while moving towards the numinous and the holy.

To be stuck in those polarities is a trap. A tree is not just timber, wood, leaves, and branches; it can also be experienced as a glorious manifestation of life, and as an experience of beauty and wholeness.

How can we find a free space, where we can discover sacredness and meaning without having to sign up for a group? I suggest that there is a longing, maybe even a need, to find a way of holding both, the secular and the sacred, together. If this is so, how do we create such a wide, open, and inclusive space?

The first challenge is to validate experiences we have already had. We may have experienced the sacred in peak moments such as when witnessing the birth of our child, an experience in nature, or when feeling great joy. The late psychologist Daniel P. Brown said, “Most people have moments of experiencing awake awareness without recognizing it.” In my experience, awake awareness is one of the most profound experiences of the sacred.

Secular mindfulness can also guide us to experiences of the sacred. When our thoughts calm down, and when we can sink below our conceptual mind, then the sacred is right there. The sacred is right behind the cloud of conceptualizing, what a medieval mystic called “the cloud of unknowing.”

Mindfulness teaches us metacognition, which is the ability to recognize the workings of the conceptual mind, with its relentless labeling, explaining, categorizing, or tendency to polarize. Instructions that have come from Tibetan Buddhism but are now entering the field of the secular, can teach us to experience the vast field of awareness, where we learn how to let things be, just as they are. When we can let go of thinking, ruminating, and conceptualizing, then we can experience the sacred, which is always right here right now; always present even when unrecognized.

I would like to make a strong plea to find this “free space,” where the secular and the sacred peacefully coexist. As much as we need the rational and the useful, is important for our mental, emotional, and spiritual health to experience wholeness and meaning in our lives. This is not only important for our personal health but also for our world, where there is so much suffering, and where polarization relentlessly feeds a culture of separation.

Attributes that are inherent to the experience of the sacred are care, wisdom, and intuitive knowing. The Dalai Lama relates the experience of the sacred to what he calls the “field of benevolence.” When the sacred co-exists with the secular, then the attributes of the experience of the sacred fertilize our experience and our relationship to the world around us.

Some see reality as non-dual, where the background field of the sacred and the dynamically arising phenomena of the secular are just two sides of the same coin. From this perspective the world is already whole, one vast web of life, radically interconnected and interdependent. When we can hold our secular world with all its problems with eyes that have been touched by the sacred, then we can meet our world with a view that is wide and open-hearted and we can meet our neighbors with more resilience, insight, and care.

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